In January, I wrote a column wondering whether the military will nurture creative, talented thinkers:
I'd like to believe that the military is not only a learning organization but an idea-generating organization, fertile ground for hundreds more Petraeuses. I'd like to believe that the intellectual ferment that characterized the COIN community was not a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. I'd like to believe that there are people in the military community who don't mind being controversial and don't mind being wrong -- sometimes it's the big but flawed ideas that spark the most useful debates -- and I'd like to believe the military will nurture and reward those people, not push them ignominiously out."
I asked readers to email me with their comments. Here's one, from a disillusioned young Air Force officer:
Let's go ahead and admit it. The military stifles talent -- in fact, it seems almost designed to drive out talent. No rational actor would choose to play this game. Before you label me as bitter or disloyal, consider the following flaws endemic to our system. What I offer are the perceptions that junior officers have of the bureaucracy they're trying to navigate. Put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself what your chances of staying in would be, once your four-to-five-year commitment was up. Caveat emptor: These are the observations of a top performing mid-career Air Force officer across four bases, five skill communities, and ten years, based on the beliefs observed among the company grade officers around him.
- The promotion system offers no opportunity to excel or advance. As an officer, the first truly competitive promotion (where you can get promoted ahead of your peer group) is at your 15th year. Fifteen years. Before that you can only disqualify yourself; you can miss a critical gate and fall behind the rest of your peer group.
- The retirement system discourages risk taking. It's an all-or-nothing, up-or-out system. If you fall behind your peer group, you will get passed over for promotion. Getting passed over makes it nearly impossible to remain in the force long enough to draw retirement. Retirement is only paid upon reaching 20 years; if you serve fewer than 20, you get nothing. Risks can only hurt you.
- The assignment system directs assignments based on the need for an officer of a particular career code (i.e., "Security Forces") and rank (i.e., "Major") in a location. It makes no attempt to catalog their skills, intentionally develop them, or track officers towards experiences they will need for higher command. Most officers don't even talk to their assignment team before being handed an assignment. Refusing any assignment means you must resign within seven days.
- Deployments, remote tours, hardship tours, and thankless staff jobs are frequently cited as ways to "pull ahead" of the pack. Successful senior leaders emphasize their divorces and flaunt how many years they've been away from their families. Rewards appear to be aligned with willingness to sacrifice work/life balance; no rational organization defines success by how much they can give up.
- Officer performance management offers no transparency; officers are not given real, honest, or timely feedback. Only the top 25% are ever quantified and stratified ("My #1 of 25 Captains!") in performance reports. The rest are left to assume they're doing ok; that they're somewhere just below that top 25%. Lacking stratification, reports are written as if each officer is fantastic. Grade inflation leads to ego inflation which encourages both complacency and mediocrity.
- Officer performance reports offer no objective measures of success or mission accomplishment. Absent objective measures, officers are left with subjective measures -- specifically, how much their bosses like them compared to their peers. When promotion and stratification depend on your boss' regard for you, a system creates perverse incentives toward politicking, backstabbing, and whitewashing your record. This system should naturally select towards the selfish and power-hungry.
- Promotion boards appear arbitrary and capricious. The Air Force freely admits that each officer's paper records get fewer than 30 seconds of review when being scored for promotion. Given the lack of stratification on most officers' records and the grade inflation for lack of objective criteria, most officers can only guess at what might be missing. The board presents no feedback to the officers being considered for promotion.
- The career field structure creates sub-competitions which do not select the best available talent for senior leadership. Some career fields top out at Major, meaning those career fields are effectively ineligible for senior leadership. Others are disproportionately selected because of cultural bias (e.g., fighter pilots) despite being relatively less equipped to manage large organizations. Note that your career field is selected for you, after you've agreed to commission, and is exceptionally difficult to change.
- Promotion is a one-way street -- officers cannot be demoted and then promoted again -- so one mistake (sometimes one bad performance report) can be a career killer. Negative feedback will only occur when someone is already on the way out -- this pattern encourages passive aggressive leadership. Officers will not be afforded a chance to learn from their mistakes or grow.
- There are no established success criteria for reaching senior leadership; officers are left to infer the right career path from anecdotes, most of which are not positive. Since generals are most exposed to promising and like-minded colonels within their career field, the flag officer ranks appear to be primarily driven by nepotism and politics.
- The decision structure is exceptionally vertical, resulting in a top-down economy of ideas even though the information resides at the bottom. Important decisions must go through multiple levels of commanders, each time being "fixed" by officers with less knowledge of the problem. Much of an officer's time (and career) are spent simplifying complex problems to be presented to a flag officer who has very little time to understand them. New ideas and initiatives are generally unwelcome, and especially from the junior ranks.
Why would a bright and enterprising young officer want to compete in this Air Force? Is there a sense of efficacy? Can they expect to manage their growth, develop their skills, or guide their own career? What young strategic thinker would choose this life? What senior leader would design this system?
The key issues in retaining top talent, at least for the Air Force, revolve around transparency, efficacy, and the incentive structure. Most of these rules are self-imposed. This is the culture we've ossified into. If we want to keep our top talent as we downsize and pivot to newer and more complex warfighting domains (e.g., drones, cyber) we have to fix this now.
100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Army National Guard Spc. Andrew Oeffinger
Finally! The Pentagon today announced that the ban on women in combat positions will be lifted.
It's about time. The prohibition on women in combat served no useful role. Instead, it devalued the vital role already played by women in military service, and stood as a barrier to advancement for women seeking leadership positions in the military.
I've written about this before, and don't have much that's new to say, so I'll just give some short excerpts from a 2005 Los Angeles Times column I wrote on women in combat, and a more recent piece published here in Foreign Policy.
In 2005, I looked at some of the reasons usually given by those who opposed letting women play combat roles:
"Women aren't big and strong enough for combat." I'll buy this when someone explains why the Marine Corps will cheerfully accept a 4-foot-10 male recruit who weighs 96 pounds.
Sure, the Marines will make a man out of him, but even if they water the guy with Miracle-Gro, they won't be able to turn him into a 6-footer. The average man may be bigger and stronger than the average woman, but plenty of women are bigger and stronger than many men. Why discriminate based on gender when you could have straightforward, task-specific strength requirements?
In any case, in a war that mixes high-tech weaponry with low-tech hazards, being big and strong isn't all it's cracked up to be. You don't need to be big and strong to fly a modern combat jet, and size won't help when you're up against suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. Why do we believe that bigger people make better soldiers? In Vietnam, an army of big, strong American men fought an army of small, slender Vietnamese men -- and lost....
"We can't let women into combat because they might get killed." They surely will, but so what? Women die in car accidents and from heart attacks, but though these deaths too are cause for sorrow, we still let women ride in cars and super-size their fries....
In contrast to the bogus arguments against women in combat, there are strong arguments in favor. Locking women out of combat positions makes it harder for women to advance within the military, limiting their opportunities to attain more prestigious jobs and higher salaries. This in turn hurts their families and increases gender inequalities in society as a whole.
Denying women the opportunity to take on combat roles also reduces their future ability to shape national policy. In the post-9/11 world, credibility on military and security issues is increasingly necessary for those who hope to succeed in important public positions -- and if only men can occupy combat roles, that gives them a substantial edge.
With the rise of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, the distinction between "front" and "rear" has eroded. In Iraq, women in noncombat military jobs, such as escorting cargo convoys or serving as military police, are in harm's way....Women will die alongside men in any terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and women, like men, are affected by our national defense policies. It's time to give them the right to fight for their country.
These aren't the only reasons to cheer the end of rules prohibiting women in combat MOS's. In the age of the all-volunteer military, the services constantly struggle to attract and retain people with the character and skills necessary for military success. Even with planned force reductions, it will still be tough to get the right people. This is all the more true as we look ahead to the challenges of the future. As I wrote in September,
The U.S. military will need people with technical experience and scientific know-how. It will also need people with foreign language and regional expertise and an anthropological cast of mind -- people who can operate comfortably and effectively surrounded by foreigners. And in the 24-7 media environment -- the era of the strategic corporal -- the military will, above all, need people with maturity and good judgment.
These days, women are increasingly outperforming men in many areas: They're more likely to enter and finish college, for instance, and to get better grades while there. If our goal is to recruit the smart, mature, and well-educated people into the military, why would we want to have rules discriminating against half the eligible population -- particularly when it's such a highly-performing half?
So three cheers for Leon Panetta. His tenure as defense secretary has been brief, and for the most part he's been stuck with the thankless task of pushing for sensible budget cuts. With this announcement, though, Panetta has ensured his place in history: He'll be the defense secretary who removed the final bar to equal opportunity in military service. Well done, Mr. Secretary.
Sgt. Sean McGinty/DVIDS
They say that "may you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse, and my last few days have certainly been interesting. Last week's column on the inner workings -- or not-workings -- of the National Security Staff provoked a great deal of comment. The great majority of the comments that came my way were complimentary, but some were decidedly not.
The sheer quantity of comment is in some ways odd, since allegations of dysfunction within President Barack Obama's National Security Staff (NSS) are nothing new. Bob Woodward describes NSS infighting at length and in lurid detail in his 2010 book, Obama's Wars, for instance, and James Mann's 2012 book The Obamians offers a similarly scathing portrait. (Describing a foreign policy inner circle made up of Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough, John Brennan, and Ben Rhodes, Mann observes that "The Obama White House didn't like independent actors or internal discord. It also didn't like to be challenged, certainly not in public, and not on the foreign policy issues of greatest sensitivity for Obama.")
Nevertheless, the twittersphere responded to last week's column with gleeful astonishment, and the emails fell from the sky like autumn leaves.
First, here's a sampling of the critics: "Naïve," sniffed one commentator. A second hypothesized that I was a "Republican masquerading as a far-leftie disappointed that Obama hasn't yet joined the world in singing kumbaya... yawn." A tweeter declared me an "idiot," while another emailer simply urged me to stop "writing this slosh in a national format ... it's better served in a happy hour setting with your Republican friends." Still another blog commenter took an opposite view of my politics, declaring, "[The] thing about Rosa Brooks is she's a leftist scumbucket, so her judgment is hardly to be trustworthy." [sic.]
The most extensive critique of my column comes in a guest blog post from Doug Wilson, formerly the Obama administration's assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Doug is a friend, and a more humble soul than I. He considers it a privilege to be yelled at by senior White House officials, and is dismayed to discover I do not share that view.
During his time as the Pentagon's senior spokesman and communications strategist, Doug Wilson was entrusted with the not-always-easy task of defending the Defense Department and the Obama administration to the Fourth Estate (which is chock full of ingrates and assorted malcontents). Since his departure from the Pentagon, he has continued to eloquently defend the administration as a national security adviser and high-level surrogate for the Obama re-election campaign.
Defending the administration is an important job, and Doug does it very well. It is not, however, my job.
My job, as I see it, is to write honestly about what I think, learn, and observe. Like all that I write, last week's column was research-based. It drew on my own experiences, but it also drew on previously published materials and on interviews with current and former administration officials.
The senior-most members of President Obama's National Security Staff are not private citizens. They're public officials -- indeed, they are among the most powerful officials in the nation. As such, they're legitimate targets of public criticism -- and just like us columnists, they sometimes have to take their lumps.
Pete Souza/White House Photo via Getty Images
A retired Pentagon general who prefers to remain anonymous because of the election season shared these observations:
In the military we have what we call "tough love," and when you ask strong, decisive people -- women especially -- to work in a demanding place like Pentagon, that's what you get...and you are glad for it.
"Tough love" isn't ingratitude or insolence; it's telling people and organizations what they need to here, versus what they think they might like to hear. In a real way, it is the highest form of flattery and respect; you don't bother to give to it to people and things that don't matter.
The best leaders understand this, and that's why they seek out people like Rosa instead of surrounding themselves with "yes-person" sycophants.
Remember that Rosa served in Bob Gates's Pentagon, and he readily expressed admiration for the "brightest and most innovative" officers who published articles that critiqued "sometimes bluntly -- the way the service does business; to include judgments about senior leadership, both military and civilian." Importantly, he added that he thought that this was "a sign of institutional vitality and health and strength."
I appreciate that some may find her military-style, no-nonsense directness unsettling, but that's simply reflective of the national security world from whence she most recently came.
Unadorned and even unfiltered candor is expected and welcomed in the high-stakes business of national security where lives hang in the balance. At the same time, she is classy enough to "mea culpa" when appropriate.
That she continues to exhibit her special brand of tough love after she left the Pentagon should surprise no one. Let's celebrate that she is who she is.
Sure, I don't always agree with her, but I would never question her sincerity, patriotism, or her dedication to making this country better and safer. She is, believe me, an equal-opportunity critic, so if one party or another thinks she they have co-opted -- or can co-opt -- her as to her beliefs and principles, my warning is this: tighten your chinstrap.
Regardless, if you really want to bring into government the much-needed perspective of the nation's most talented women, you can't expect them to forever after be ideological Stepford wives who mindlessly spout campaign talking points like servile automatons. No one should want that.
And I believe (at least I'd like to believe) that both candidates would want there to be as many "Rosas" as possible because their candid and insightful feedback makes us all better...even when it stings.
A twitter commentator notes that last week's column "succeeded in jumbling many-an-infantryman's panties." I feel bad about that, twisted knickers being a discomfort I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. But let's take stock of the infantrymen's complaints:
1) Rosa Brooks has never been in combat! Guilty as charged. As a nosy human rights and journalist type, I have occasionally had the very unpleasant experience of getting shot at. I scurried away as fast as I could.
2) Because she's never been in combat, she's not qualified to say anything about what qualities the military will need! Come on, guys. Give me a little credit. Contrary to popular belief, most of us columnists don't just make stuff up. We do research -- which means, among other things, that when we lack personal experience with something, we talk to lots of people who've had more experience. My statements about combat and modern warfare are informed by the many conversations I've had about these issues with friends in uniform.
3) But physical strength is vital in the infantry ... and the infantry is the heart of the military. Okay, let's stipulate that physical strength is vital in the infantry. But though the infantry may be the historical heart of the military, that's not where most military personnel find their homes. Even in the Army, only about fifteen percent of soldiers are in the infantry. So if we're talking about what we should look for in recruiting infantrymen, perhaps physical strength should be an important criterion -- but since most military recruits will not be infantrymen, will not have any combat MOS and will never see combat, why should a quality that's important for infantrymen be considered equally important for the overwhelming majority of recruits who are heading into a non-combat MOS?
Even if physical strength is vital in combat, it's becoming a necessary but not sufficient quality for an infantryman. The infantry has been asked to do more in recent years than just "close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver." We have increasingly asked infantry troops to conduct key leader engagements with people whose cultures are vastly different than ours, or bring essential services to people who lack them, and so on. All this puts a premium on brains rather than brawn. As David Petraeus puts it, "The most powerful tool any soldier carries is not his weapon but his mind. These days, and for the days ahead as far as we can see, what soldiers at all ranks know is liable to be at least as important to their success as what they can physically do."
4) You're saying that physical fitness is irrelevant for most military personnel! No, I'm saying that sheer strength is no longer as vital as it used to be ... And that technical skills, maturity and judgment are more vital than they used to be. It's a matter of relative importance, not of absolute importance. Ideally, we would recruit people who possess physical strength and endurance and critical skills and good judgment. It's a balance, and the optimal balance will vary by branch and MOS. But we may be more likely to find that optimal balance if we recruit more aggressively among women and men who are over 24.
5) You're saying that all young men are immature! Well ... Kinda! No, just kidding. Some are. Some aren't. Statistically, though, the 18-24-year-old male demographic is just not a hotbed of maturity. Sorry.
6) You want to recruit at the AARP! I really was kidding about that. Cross my heart. Though I've seen a few old ladies who are demons with their walkers, my proposal is more modest. I propose that if we want to find the optimal mix of fitness, skill and judgment, we should not focus primarily on young men. (And for the record, my extremely awesome husband, who commands an infantry battalion and recently attained the positively antique age of 45, regularly puts his junior soldiers to shame during PT. Also for the record, he bears no responsibility for any dumb stuff I say.)
7) You want to exclude young men from the military! No. Our military should welcome 18-24 year olds -- assuming they're emotionally mature enough not to cause more problems than they help solve. But we should also increase efforts to recruit women and older Americans -- assuming that they too can satisfy minimum fitness requirements -- and explore ways to reform the military personnel system, so the military can attract and retain a wider range of people with a wider range of skills and attributes.
Now was that really so painful?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Jim Hanson, a former Special Forces Weapons NCO who writes for the military blog Blackfive, worries that the civilian-military gap enables the politicization of national security: although this "problem is larger and predates the current administration...it is hard to hear the stories from uniformed folks currently serving about how the political officials weigh in regularly on how national security decisions could affect Obama's polling."
I've seen some of this myself, and it's not pretty. It's certainly not unique to this administration, though: War has always been politicized. Intuitively, it makes sense to think that civilians with less understanding of the military might be particularly prone to politicize decisions about national security, but I don't know if there's any empirical evidence to support this. If you know of any, please share.
Meanwhile, several people wrote to suggest expanded
civilian-military exchanges and educational opportunities. Capt. Kyle Borne,
who's currently serving in Afghanistan, wonders "if having a 'U.S. Military'
class in our nation's high schools might alleviate the growing
gulf between civilian and military." He worries, though, that some might perceive such a course as "the military...trying to brainwash their children."
I wonder if any schools (other than military schools) offer courses or units on the military, and if any teaching modules on the military are available for use by high school teachers. Seems to me that a well-done, balanced course on the history, present, and future of the U.S. military could be a fascinating window through which to look at any number of issues, from the changing nature of security threats to the role of the military as an agent of social change in America (think desegregation).
Matthew Colford, a student at Stanford, suggested that civilian universities might "consider creating week-long exchange programs with the military academies (provided the latter are willing). These programs would expose students at both institutions to 'the other side.' Were a civilian student to live as a cadet for a week his or her perspective would almost certainly change, for better or worse, just as it would for a cadet who attends a civilian institution for a week."
It would be tough to implement something like this on a large scale, given the small number of service academies compared to the very large number of civilian universities, but the idea of a pilot exchange program with selected universities might be feasible -- as would the creation of "mini" ROTC programs for civilian undergraduates interested in learning more about the military without necessarily having to make a multi-year service commitment.
Eric Anton writes, "I'm a company grade officer and have had the misfortune to spend a year in a deployed HQ." He suggests bridging the civilian-military gap by creating short "Military 101" courses for civilians who will be working with military personnel, and increasing the use of dedicated Liaison officers and Points of Contact for inter-agency planning and coordination.
Rebecca Ben-Amou, a student at Dickinson College, urges an increase in mid-career exchanges between military and civilian organizations. "It should be a requirement for Foreign Service Officers and members of other executive branch agencies to engage in [such a] 'personnel swap' before qualifying for higher-level positions."
My own top three ideas: 1) Develop a two- or three-day "Military 101" course tailored for senior civilian officials with national security or foreign policy jobs, and make it mandatory. People will whine about taking it. (Everyone thinks civilization will come to a crashing halt if they're out of the office for three days. It won't.) But a basic understanding of military structure, planning, etc. would dramatically improve the quality and efficiency of decision-making.
2) Increase opportunities for career military personnel to spend a year here and there in civilian institutions, and reward them for doing so. This idea has been championed by David Petraeus and many others, and the military has begun to respond -- but more should be done.
3) Increase opportunities for interested civilians at every level to spend a period of time working within the military. The week-long Joint Civilian Orientation Course sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense is the right idea, but it's too short and too small. Why not invest in civil-military relations by creating month-long (or even year-long) programs that would enable civilians to work within military organizations? Make the program competitive and prestigious-sounding, and focus on attracting "influencers" and thought leaders from a range of communities. Start small -- maybe a hundred people in year one -- and assess and expand as the program goes forward, with a view to expanding it over time.
Those three ideas all strike me as feasible and relatively easy: that is, with a little will, significant improvements could be made within a couple of years. Longer term, I'd love to see this country get serious about national service...but that's another story.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Some readers wonder if I'm exaggerating the general cluelessness -- with regard to military matters -- of civilians on the National Security Staff. I wish. There are plenty of impressive exceptions -- there are military detailees on the NSS, for instance, as well as retired military and civilians with DoD experience, but on the whole, cluelessness seemed fairly rampant during my two executive branch stints.
Another example: Frustrated at the "lack of traction with the military" on a particular issue, a senior NSS official sought my advice: "There's this general who comes to our meetings and he sits there and nods, but nothing ever seems to happen."
I asked for the general's name, and looked him up. Turned out that he worked in the manpower and personnel directorate of the Joint Staff, and his portfolio had nothing to do with the issue my colleague was concerned about. My NSS colleague wasn't getting any traction with "the military" because the wrong guy was at the meetings (what he was doing there, I don't know). It was the equivalent of wondering why someone working in human resources wasn't fixing a manufacturing or marketing problem.
"Oh," said my NSS friend said -- a little sheepishly -- upon hearing this. "I was just happy to have a guy with a star on his shoulder at our meetings."
Those guys with the stars on their shoulder aren't interchangeable. Granted, there's no reason for a senior civilian official to memorize the Joint Staff's organization chart. (Plenty of military people don't know it, either). But it helps to know that there is an org chart.
None of this is meant to knock the intelligence, dedication or general good sense of those civilians who don't know much about the military. Unlike the military, which has the money and the mandate to send its senior officers to school after school (where they may take courses on everything from international relations to how the U.S. national security decision-making process is meant to work), civilian executive branch personnel -- particularly political appointees -- have fewer structured opportunities to learn about the military. The civilian-military gap is wide, and that's not the fault of anyone in particular.
And it cuts both ways: there are moments when military frustration with civilian decision-makers reflects just as much willful obtuseness or rigidity. Military hierarchies serve vital functions, and the military is extremely good at developing standardized processes for addressing complex issues. But in some contexts, these inevitably get in the way: in my Sudan example last week, for instance, all the White House really wanted was a rough, ballpark sense of how complicated and risky various potential U.S. responses might be. Several mid-level officers involved in the discussions could have answered their questions with quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. But none had the authority or the will to circumvent the sacred planning process, even informally, so months of tense discussions ensued.
The civilian-military gap strikes me as eminently bridgeable, at the senior level. Not 100 percent bridgeable, perhaps, but certainly 90 percent bridgeable. I have some thoughts on potential reforms that might address this problem, but will save them for later. Meanwhile, readers: do you have ideas on how to bridge this gap? Send them to me here, and let me know if it's okay to quote you in a column or blog.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
In my last column, I wrote about the civilian-military gap, and asked whether the most common laments about it make sense when examined closely. We tend to think that the military is "special" in some way, and fundamentally different from other occupations. I asked whether that belief in military "differentness" is justified, and suggested that in many respects, the military isn't as different as we assume.
That is: If members of the military deserve special consideration and respect, it can't be simply because careers in the military are dangerous, since there are other occupations that are equally dangerous that we don't view as similarly "special." It can't be simply because military service often involves extreme hardships (time away from families, long hours, physical discomfort), since here too, many civilians have jobs that involve such hardship. And finally, the military's specialness can't be based simply on the fact that military careers provide a vital public service, since millions of other Americans also do work that serves the nation in critical ways, whether that involves teaching our children, building our roads, mining our coal or staffing our hospitals.
Some readers objected to these arguments, viewing them as an offensive implied comparison between military personnel and the likes of truck drivers or sanitation workers. But the comparison shouldn't cause any angst -- why should we regard those who do the exhausting, dangerous, and invisible work of hauling goods or hauling our trash with anything other than respect? Millions of Americans give their all -- their energy, their health, their time -- on cold, windy oil drilling platforms, in dark, methane-filled mines, and in decaying inner-city classrooms. Noting that military service is less different from such other jobs than many assume is no insult to the military. In a better world, we'd respect and honor all the Americans -- military and civilian alike -- who do difficult, dangerous work for the benefit of the nation.
But there are two key ways in which serving in the military is deeply different from serving the country as a school teacher or working in a coal mine.
For one thing, our nation, like some many others, arose out of war, and the cauldron of war has profoundly shaped our history. For this reason, the military is deeply linked to our sense of national identity -- to dearly held national narratives about where we come from and who we are -- in a way that is true for no other profession.
No other profession has shed so much blood at the nation's behest. For members of the military, the shedding of blood (that of others and that of their own) isn't a strictly incidental part of their work -- something that could happen, might happen, but isn't supposed to happen. Historically, the shedding of blood has been the fundamental purpose of militaries.
Some service members will never hear a shot fired in anger, of course -- and in my own experience, military personnel tend to be a great deal less bloodthirsty than the average civilian, perhaps because they've been forced to consider what it truly means to be prepared to kill and die. Most military personnel I know fervently hope killing and dying will never be required, that the mere existence of a robust American military prepared to kill and die will help deter conflicts, and ultimately reduce bloodshed.
Yet the fact remains: Even as our military finds itself moving into unfamiliar terrain (cyberspace, the information domain, intelligence gathering, humanitarian aid, development work), it's still the only public institution that's inherently defined by the willingness of its members to kill and die.
There's a second and related reason to view military service as fundamentally different from other kinds of work. However tough and dangerous their jobs are, loggers and miners and commercial pilots can always quit. A commercial pilot who doesn't like his odds can decide from one day to the next to become a realtor; a miner ordered into a situation he deems dangerous can tell the foreman to go to hell. His pay may be docked -- he may be fired and face consequent economic hardship -- but he won't go to prison for his refusal to risk his life.
That's not the case for service members. Yes, we have a volunteer military, but once you sign up, there's no changing your mind until you've fulfilled your service obligation. A soldier ordered to engage the enemy can't politely decline. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, disobeying a lawful order will land you behind bars-and desertion in wartime is still punishable by death.
When someone volunteers for the military, they do more than just sign on for a career that may have its difficulties and dangers. They're asked, in effect, to embrace those dangers, and from that moment on, to waive their fundamental right to preserve their own lives. The Declaration of Independence tells us that all men have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but those who volunteer for military service effectively give up those rights. Once in the military, their lives belong to the nation. Their time, their comfort, and ultimately their lives are subject to the whims of their military superiors, who, in turn, are subject to the whims of elected civilian leaders.
In the end, this is why civilians in a democracy have a moral obligation to understand the military, treat service members with respect and concern, and try to ensure that military force is used wisely and only when necessary. Members of the military voluntarily place their lives in our hands.
I suggested at the end of my July 26 column that there's a pragmatic reason to worry about the civilian-military gap: When senior military officials and senior civilian officials engage with each other at the national level, a lot of vital questions just get lost in translation. Too often, that leads both to an impoverished decision-making process and to poor policy outcomes. (I'll discuss this more next week.)
But the moral cost of the civilian-military gap is also real. Civilians have the luxury of voting or not voting, tuning in or tuning out, deciding to pay attention to the war in Afghanistan or deciding to watch American Idol instead. But if we -- through our votes, our choices or our simple lack of interest in events that feel distant and unimportant -- allow our troops to be ordered into harm's way, our troops have no choice but to go. Service members entrust us with their lives.
Is their trust in us misplaced?
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
More from readers of last week's inaugural column: On the one hand, several people argued that military benefits aren't all they're cracked up to be, and pointed to high levels of poverty and homelessness among veterans, food stamp use by active duty personnel, and other problems. Similarly, several readers noted that financial benefits can hardly compensate military personnel for the danger, the disruptions to family life, and the high suicide and divorce rates.
On the other hand, some readers argued that the risks and problems associated with military service are often de-contextualized, and that if all factors are considered, military personnel have no more reason to complain than many civilians. The military may be a dangerous and important career, but it's no more so than several other occupations, and the risks depend greatly on which branch of the service we're talking about.
My own view? Little here is black and white. I'm not very interested in questions about whether particular groups "deserve" this or that; I'm more interested in getting a nuanced and fact-based view of what's actually happening out there, how we came to the place we're at, and where we might be able to go from here.
To that end, I've been doing some research on the issues mentioned above. Here's some of what I've gleaned so far (still much more research to be done, so take this for what it is: preliminary). I'll leave readers to decide for themselves what it all means.
Within the adult civilian population of the U.S. overall, about one person in 10 is a veteran. Veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless, however: As of 2011, roughly one in seven homeless Americans was a veteran.
According to USA Today, ex-servicemembers under the age of thirty make up only 5 percent of the nation's veterans, but they make up 9 percent of the population of homeless veterans.
That's not because veterans are less-educated that other Americans. On the contrary, as a group, veterans are less likely to have dropped out of high school and more likely to have some college or an associates degree.
Suicide and divorce in the military:
DoD statistics show military suicides at a record high. According to the New York Times, military personnel are slightly more likely than the general civilian population to die as a result of suicide: In 2008, there were 20 suicides out of every 100,000 members of the military population, while the figure for civilians was 18 per 100,000. These figures change when you adjust them to reflect for age: comparing military personnel to comparably-aged civilians, military personnel were actually less likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts, according to a 2012 report by the Armed Services Health Surveillance Center.
How about divorce? Counter-intuitively, members of the military are less likely than civilians to get divorced, the strain of deployments notwithstanding. Depending on which demographic slice of the military you look at, however (enlisted versus officers, men versus women, older versus younger, different service branches and occupational specialties, etc.), the statistics change.
How dangerous is military service?
This seems like it should be an easy question to answer, but it's actually a rather difficult one, since it's hard to get apples to apples comparisons. Some data points:
The Armed Services Health Surveillance Center reports that from 1990 through 2011, about 29,000 U.S. military personnel died of all causes (combat deaths, illness, accident, homicide, suicide, etc.), leading to an average "crude mortality rate" per 100,000 person-years of 77.5. (In other words, in any given year, an average of 77.5 military personnel out of each 100,000 could be expected to die.)
Although those statistics cover two decades that included the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military mortality rate remained substantially lower than the crude mortality rate among civilians aged 15-44, which was 127.5 per 100,000 person-years in 2005.
Does this make the military a safer career choice than others? Not necessarily: The military only accepts reasonably fit and healthy people, and it's hard to determine the self-selection effects.
Another way to measure danger is to look at on-the-job deaths. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2010 fatality rate per 100,000 workers was 116 for the fishing industry, 92 for the logging industry and 71 for airline pilots.
How about differences between services and occupational specialties? Unsurprisingly, combat occupational specialties increase your risk of death: Across all services, the mortality rate for those in combat-specific occupations was 128.5 per 100,000 person-years. Comparing the services, mortality rates were highest for Marines (104 per 100,000 person-years) and the Army (96/100,000). In contrast, the Air Force had a mortality rate of 33.4 per 100,000 person years, making it a less dangerous occupation than farming, ranching, and operating mining machines, and about on a par with roofing.
Are these lies, damn lies, or just statistics? You tell me. Please add to my knowledge bank or correct my glaring errors by sending me an email.
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Some readers are taking me to task for impugning the military with the word socialism. I should be clear: though I may be one of the last three people in America who feels this way, I don't use "socialism" as a dirty word, at least if what we mean by "socialism" is having a society that takes decent care of its people. (No, no, no, I'm not gonna defend the USSR. I'm just saying that there's something to be said for the welfare state.)
I've also been taken to task ("Ungrateful moron!," writes a Mr. David
Hurley) for failing to see that a) the military deserves these great benefits,
damn it, because they may get shot at/must at times live away from their families
etc., or b) the benefits aren't all they're cracked up to be, because the
on-base housing sucks! the health care sucks! the pay for junior enlisted
troops sucks! Etc.
I don't disagree. I'm all in favor of the majority of the benefits for which military personnel are eligible. (The sole exception might be the ability to immediately draw pensions after 20 years). In some cases, I agree that the benefits could use improvement: the quality of some services is uneven.
Whether the current level of spending on military benefits is sustainable,
given economic realities, is a separate and critical question, but I will leave
that to a future column or blog.
My real beef? It's not that benefits for military personnel are "too generous," morally speaking. They're not. What strikes me as sad is that we seem to lack a similarly generous instinct for the large majority of citizens who aren't in the military. I think it's fine to reward those who serve in important ways with some "extras," but I don't think access to affordable health care, housing or higher education should be considered rewards or extras. Those are the bare minimum benefits a decent, functioning society should strive to provide for all its citizens.
As I said, I'm cool with the military welfare state. I just wish we'd spread it
around a bit more.
My Georgetown colleague David Luban picks up on a related point. He writes:
"[Your column] made me think about a major contradiction in our national psyche:
1. Americans mistrust big government.
2. Americans believe in free markets as opposed to command economies.
3. Americans trust the military more than any other pubic institution.
4. The military is the biggest thing in big government, and it's run through a chain of command?
How is it that people who don't believe in top-down command to run society think that a top-down command organization is the most trustworthy and reliable one in society?"
Good question. American attitudes towards the military are full of contradictions and ironies. We want the military to do more; we want it to stick to it's "core competencies," we worship it; we don't want our children in it; we want it to have the generous benefits we decry as socialistic and and anti-freedom when a Democrat urges them for the rest of the country; we want the military to solve our problems and go everywhere; we want it to stay out of our sight.
This first column introduces some of these themes. I look forward to exploring them more fully in the coming months. Meanwhile, keep the comments and emails coming.
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Rosa Brooks, who writes FP's "By Other Means" column, blogs about war, politics, and the evolving role of the military.